Helena Frith Powell meets Henning Mankell, the Swedish crime writer, ahead of his visit to the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair and explains what lies beyond doom and gloom that characterise his books. The Swedish language consists of a relatively small number of words. In comparison with the 750,000 words it is estimated we have at our disposal in English, academics guess that Swedish is made up of fewer than 90,000. But there are some Swedish words that convey a great deal of meaning. One of these words is dyster, which literally translated means "gloomy", but to a Swedish speaker conjures up much more than this. It is an atmosphere, a Swedish landscape bathed in grey, oppressive winter light and a feeling of hopelessness.
It is this feeling that permeates the books of Henning Mankell. When I wrote to a friend who reviews crime books for a living to ask her what she thought of his work she replied: "Henning is a gloomy old Swede. His crime novels are unrelentingly gloomy, as is his sad old detective Wallander. However, most people think he's one of the best of the Scandinavian crime writers ever. Personally I find reading most Scandinavian crime fiction like wading through icy water, but others love it."
His novels do have an icy feeling to them, mainly due to the unrelenting winter he describes in his native Sweden. In The Pyramid, a short story from the book of the same name, for example, he describes fog rolling in from the sea and the temperature as four degrees above zero at the scene of a murder. His hero, Wallander, seems to be constantly cold as he goes about solving crimes. Mankell denies that he is dyster or even weather-obsessed. "I write about the weather," he concedes. "It is true that in Sweden we complain about the cold a lot and that in Mozambique [where he also has a home] they complain about the heat. But I would not say that I am gloomy, absolutely not."
The author Michael Ondaatje calls Mankell "by far the best writer of police mysteries today. He is in the great tradition of those whose work transcends their chosen genre to become thrilling and moral literature." Since his first book he has been published in more than 30 countries and won countless awards for his work. Henning Mankell was born on February 3 1948 in Stockholm and raised in a village in northern Sweden. By the age of 20 he was already working as a writer and an assistant director at Stockholm's Riks Theater. His first novel, about the Swedish workers' movement, was called Bergsprängaren (The Rock Blaster) and was published in 1973.
"I never really made a choice to become a writer," he says. "It was just something I knew I would do from a very early age. There was a kind of inevitability about it." Although he continued to write, he devoted most of his time to the theatre. He was the head of the Kronobergsteatern in Växjö, Sweden where he introduced a policy of producing only Swedish plays. The initiative turned out to be a success and audience numbers increased. He now runs the Teatro Avenida in Maputo, Mozambique, where he lives for half of the year. "Writing is a lonely, solitary occupation," he says. "The theatre is lively, full of people and the contrast interests me. As for the idea to introduce Swedish plays to the theatre, my thinking was that without new drama the theatre dies. It cannot live on the classics alone."
In 1991 he had his big breakthrough as a writer with the first of the Kurt Wallander mysteries, Faceless Killers, which he wrote in Mozambique. The novel was awarded The Academy of Swedish Crime Writers' Prize. He was surprised his big break came with this book. Why? "In art there are no guarantees. You are always surprised by a book, if it does well or if it doesn't. Faceless Killers did extremely well and that was the surprise."
Mankell continued to write a Kurt Wallander mystery more-or-less every two years until 1999, as well as carrying on some of his earlier themes. For example, Secrets Of The Fire continues the theme of children, describing the plight of children in war-torn Mozambique, focusing on Sofia, the young victim of a landmine. "I enjoy living in Africa because it gives me a different perspective on the world," he says. "I have one foot in the sand and one foot in the snow."
It is not just African society that comes under scrutiny in Mankell's novels. In The Fifth Woman, published in 1996, Mankell observes that society in Sweden "had grown cruel. People who felt they were unwanted or unwelcome in their own country reacted with aggression. There was no such thing as meaningless violence. Every violent act had a meaning for the person who committed it. Only when you dared accept this truth could you hope to turn society in another direction."
He still has a home near Gothenburg in southern Sweden and calls his native country a "decent" place to live. However, he thinks there are fundamental problems with the society that stem back to social reforms in the 1980s and 1990s, which included a deregulation of the financial markets. "We threw the baby out with the bath water," he says. "We broke with everything without thinking about what we were doing. How do democracy and civil society belong together? This is a question that interests me enormously and that we need to work on in Sweden."
Mankell is married to Eva Bergman, the daughter of Sweden's most celebrated film director, Ingmar Bergman, whom he describes as a "genius", a word he does not use lightly. "I really do think that as far as Bergman goes, that is the right word to use. His influence was truly global and very important." In 2001 Mankell founded a publishing house called Leopard, which now publishes all his novels in Sweden, a country he says is in dramatic change. "We want to mirror that social change through our publications. Thus we will publish books on history, social debate and popular science. Novels are also an unsurpassed form to understand people, here in Sweden as well as around the world. The publishing of novels will hence be an important part of all publishing."
Rumour has it that he is working on another Wallander mystery. The last one came out in 1999. What does he think of the man who has brought him international fame and fortune? "Not much," laughs Mankell. "I think if he were alive we wouldn't be really good friends. He leads a very different life to mine and we are very different people. But I also think it is much easier to write about someone you can be a little critical about."
And is there another novel in the pipeline? Mankell won't be drawn on that; for the moment it will have to remain a mystery. Henning Mankell will be at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre. He will discuss his works for children with his Arab publisher Mona Henning at 7pm on March 19. On March 21 he will sign his books at 6.30pm, discuss his crime fiction at 7.30pm and at 9pm he will award the winner of the M short story competition.